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Could Cabernet Franc be native to Navarra?

Studies by the centre of viticultural research in Navarra suggest that Cabernet Franc may have originated from the Spanish wine region – although the grape is not authorised by Navarra today.

The red grapes approved for DO Navarra are Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha, Graciano, Merlot, Mazuelo, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Tempranillo

Speaking to the drinks business during a tasting of Navarran wines in the region on Friday last week, Ana Sagüés Sarasa, who is in charge of viticultural research at the Estación de Viticultura y Enología de Navarra (EVENA), said that it was possible that Cabernet Franc, most commonly associated with French regions Bordeaux and the Loire, was in fact from Navarra, one of Spain’s most ancient wine-producing areas just south of the French border.

“We believe that Cabernet Franc may have originated from Navarra,” she said, pointing out that her current research was centred on re-discovering the native grapes of the region.

Continuing, she said that such a belief was based on monastic documents from the fourteenth century that mention Cabernet Franc in connection with the region, when the Kingdom of Navarre would have been under French rule.

Agreeing with the assertion, Julián Suberviola, who heads up oenological research at EVENA, said that tracing the grape’s origins to Navarra was complicated by the fact that varieties in the region can have up to three different names: one that is French, another that is Spanish, and a further that is Basque, due to the different rulers of the area throughout history.

According to Wine Grapes (Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz, 2012), both genetic and historical studies suggest that Cabernet Franc did originate in the Basque Country, which includes DO Navarra within its boundaries.

The book bases this assertion on the fact that Cabernet Franc has parent-offspring relationships with two ancient cultivars form the Basque Country: Morenoa and Hondarribi Beltza, as well as evidence that priests from the church of Roncesvalles – which was established in the C12th centure in the Spanish basque country close to the French border – had planted vineyards using local grapes such as Achéria, meaning ‘Fox’ – the Basque name for Cabernet Franc.

Wine Grapes also states that Achéria is morphologically the most archaic of the Cabernet Franc clones around today.

However, presently, there is almost no Cabernet Franc planted in Navarra, and the grape is not one of the approved varieties for making wine in the region, although it is now possible to plant the variety for making Vino de Mesa.

Consequently, Guillermo Penso, who is the director of Navarra’s Bodega Otazu, said that he would be planting Cabernet Franc at his estate near Pamplona.

Navarra’s Bodega Otazu is planting Cabernet Franc this year

“Last year we obtained approval to plant Cabernet Franc in Navarra so we will be planting it this year at the property, but it can’t be used to make a wine labelled DO Navarra,” he told the drinks business last week.

Although the two most planted grapes in Navarra today are Tempranillo and Garnacha, before phylloxera devastated the vineyards of the region in the 1890s, Mazuelo (Carignan) was the most planted variety in Navarra, according to Ana Sagüés Sarasa.

“Mazuelo was the most planted and the most noble grape of Navarra before phylloxera,” she told db.

When asked whether producers were making varietal Mazuelo today, she said that she wasn’t aware of any producer championing the grape in Navarra now, but confirmed that researchers at EVENA were using Mazuelo from very old vines to make a wine of “very good quality”.

She pointed out that Garnacha, which has become celebrated in Navarra for making varietal reds and rosés, as well as adding a distinctively Spanish touch to Navarran blends with international grapes, is newly-fashionable, and was initially only chosen for planting after phylloxera because of its disease-resistance – particularly to oidium – and not for the quality of wine it can produce.

Red grapes approved for wines that carry the DO Navarra stamp are, in alphabetical order, Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha, Graciano, Merlot, Mazuelo, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Tempranillo.

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